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The Reader Inside Me: The Pulp Existentialism of Jim Thompson


When James Myers Thompson died in Los Angeles, 1977, not a single book of his was available in print. Beset for decades by his frail mental health, alcoholism and financial precarity, Thompson had turned to hackwork in Hollywood to make ends meet (an unfortunate fate for many great writers of the 20th century). While posthumous fame is nothing to be celebrated without great qualification, it is ironic that a man who was slavishly devoted to his craft and yet always cheated of success (by Stanley Kubrick, no less), is now a literary star undoubtedly soaring in ascent.

Jim Thompson's latest work to undergo the flash and filigree of cinematization is the Casey Affleck vehicle, The Killer Inside Me. Based on the book by the same name, it depicts a first-person account of a sociopathic 'unreliable narrator'; his Pop. 1280 works along a similar logic, and in 1981 was made into the exquisite Coup de Torchon. Other films written from his material or involving his input in some capacity are Peckinpah's The Getaway (and its dismal remake), The Killing, Paths of Glory, Farewell My Lovely, and The Grifters.

Thompson was no MFA darling; reared under the hand-to-mouth pulp tradition of the "Weird" and true crime magazines by the likes of Robert Howard, H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, young Thompson worked in seedy Dallas hotels, on roughneck Texas oil fields, and in a series of backbreaking, exploited oddjobs typical of pre-Depression America (Thompson was also a member of the I.W.W. during this time). 

Eventually, Thompson managed to head the Oklahoma Federal Writers Project, a program similarly launched in other states by the W.P.A., and for a while tried his hand at more serious literature. It was during this time Thompson and Louis L'Amour had a major falling-out as friends. 

Thompson's style, content and attudinal-philosophical stance stands out from the majority of pulp writers. While many dime novels of yesterday (and yes, their $7.99 equivalents today) steer their reader into familiar, formulaic narrative territory-- paternalistically prodding the story along with convenient omniscient narration (like the prevalent use of the voiceover coddling movie audiences)--Thompson never insults the intelligence of his reader with easy answers, even at times delving into experimental asides and codas, surrealistically upending any possibility of closure. Whereas many pulp detective novels end with an affirmation of the establishment's norms, Thompson chooses teeth-gnashing nihilisms and infinite, Promethean existentialisms: there is simply no exit for the infernos his anti-heroes engage.

Furthermore, much of the prose of the era tended to clone the most sensational and dimwitted style of Mickey Spillane and his chauvinist Mike Hammer. Today many of these generic "hard-boiled" stories and novels do not hold up well; products of a self-censoring culture and written with nothing but profit in mind, it is little wonder so much of them are scarcely readable. 

At the same time, the rich and rewarding tales of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler of course set the bar for the noir-thriller genre, a style and tradition that tends to revitalize itself every ten years or so. However, it is important to note Hammett and Raymond still procured a distinctly American trope in their stories: the main character (Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe) tends to be a beacon of light and humanity in a wilderness of corruption and evil. By highlighting and muckraking the external dregs of society in a popular manner, Hammett and Raymond could still indirectly focus on what are still nominally Puritanical values. The old, rusty mantra: the individual is sacrosanct, the world is fallen.

Thompson has no time for such simplistic moral Manicheanism. If anything, his characters are suffused with psychological complexity, contradiction and outright perversity. At times unlikable, amoral or autistically impervious to empathy, Thompson's fictional personas cast a critical, if unblinking, eye on the mental landscape of "respectable" social types: sheriffs, doctors, bankers, lawyers, housewives-- all of them stewing and brimming with hatred, greed, conspiracy and primordial drives. Thompson's moral ecology is therefore one of degree, not of kind; rather than describing humanity's nature, he writes of its condition.

And lordy, it is not pretty. 


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